- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 22, 2019

The flu has sickened millions and hospitalized thousands across the U.S., with widespread elevated activity reported in most states, the latest tally shows.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the flu has sickened 3.7 million to 5.3 million people, hospitalized 32,000 to 57,000 and killed 1,800 to 4,500 since the start of October, according to preliminary estimates.

The U.S. is in its earliest flu season in more than 15 years, with activity largely driven by influenza B/Victoria viruses, which don’t typically emerge until later in the season.

Nineteen influenza-related pediatric deaths have been reported to the CDC. Thirteen were associated with influenza B viruses, and six were linked to influenza A viruses.

Forty-eight U.S. jurisdictions are reporting regional or widespread activity, and 21 states are reporting high flu activity, nearly double from the previous week.

This year’s flu vaccine protects against four viruses, two A strains and two B strains, including the B/Victoria strain. It also protects against the B/Yamagata virus and H1N1 and H3N2 viruses (both A strains).

Following B/Victoria viruses, H1N1 viruses are the most common strains circulating the U.S. this flu season.

Although the season has been underway for weeks, health experts say it’s not too late to still get a flu shot.

“Go get vaccinated, especially if you are a child, or are older and/or have a chronic condition such as heart disease, diabetes, lung disease,” said Dr. Litjen Tan, chief strategy officer of the Immunization Action Coalition. “If you work with or contact vulnerable populations, you should get vaccinated not just for yourself, but also for those more vulnerable.”

Medical professionals recommend everyone 6 months old and older get the flu vaccine each year.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he thinks many people don’t take the flu seriously since it happens every year and because people often confuse minor respiratory symptoms as the flu when it’s not.

This flu season, similar to last season, has taken an unanticipated turn. Last season, the effectiveness of the flu vaccine dropped from 47% to 29% when a group of H3N2 viruses unexpectedly rose to prominence.

Flu vaccine effectiveness rates average around 40%.

While the flu vaccine could use improvements, it still provides vast protection, said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. He noted the vaccine can lessen a person’s chance of suffering complications and shorten and alleviate influenza illnesses.

New research findings published Thursday conclude a person’s success in fending off the flu does not depend only on the virus’ ability to mutate but also on the strain first encountered during childhood.

The article, published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, provides an explanation as to why patients react differently when infected with the same strain of the flu virus.

“Part of your immune system’s response to current infection is directed against the strain you first had as a kid, and that investment of fighting the last war appears to compromise your ability to form a fully effective immune response to the invader you encounter later,” study co-author Michael Worobey, head of the ecology and evolutionary biology department at the University of Arizona, said in a statement.

“The last two flu seasons have been more severe than expected,” he said. “In the 2017-18 season, 80,000 people died in the U.S., more than in the swine flu pandemic of 2009. Influenza is a major, major killer — not just in this country, but worldwide.”

The World Health Organization calls influenza “one of the world’s greatest public health challenges.” It estimates there are a billion flu cases worldwide each year, including three to five million severe cases that lead to between 290,000 and 650,000 deaths.

The CDC estimates that influenza has caused between 9.3 million to 49 million illnesses, between 140,000 to 960,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 to 79,000 deaths annually in the U.S. since 2010.

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